When we think of Muhammad Ali, we have the image of a legendary boxer in our mind’s eye, one who danced around his opponents with beguiling footwork and virtually provoked them with drooping arms to run them into his fast fist combinations. His big mouth and cheeky sayings did the rest to make him the darling of the media and the public. But you don’t become a legend with a big mouth. For that, you need a challenge or opponents who are big enough to allow the legend to form.
When we think of Ali, we also think of Joe Frazier, Sonny Liston or George Foreman, opponents who offered Ali everything but a walk in the park in the fight for the world title. These opponents made Ali a legend, without them he would never have become a legend. Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson, one of the NBA basketball legends with the LA Lakers, also stood out for his rivalry with Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics. For years, they kept meeting each other, goading each other to better and better performances and transforming the NBA in the process. Although the two were rivals on the court, they were best friends in private. One could not exist without the other. The thought that Larry Bird grabbed a better rebound than he did motivated Johnson to train even harder – and vice versa. Just how much the two needed each other was seen when Magic Johnson retired as an active player in 1991. A year later, Larry Bird also announced his retirement; he had lost his equal rival.
How much such kind of rivalry is necessary is shown by the fight for the title of Ultimate Fighting Championship of 2017 between Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor. The revelation that after the fight the winner Mayweather hung two portraits of himself and his opponent of the same size next to each other on the wall in his residence in Beverly Hills surprised many fans. Without such a challenging opponent, such a victory didn’t count for much and that honored Mayweather, who was all too aware of that.
Even ‘bad guys’ in movies don’t want victories to fall into their laps. In the comedy ‘The Great Race‘, Tony Curtis as Leslie Gallant III and Jack Lemmon as the cunning Professor Fate play two adventurers who take part in a race with their automobiles from New York across the USA via Asia to Paris. In this fast-paced comedy, there are all kinds of entanglements and turbulent incidents among the participants, with Tony Curtis clashing time and again with his competitor picked up along the way, the emancipated Maggie Dubois, played by Nathalie Wood. Just before the finish line under the Eiffel Tower, Leslie and Maggie are ahead when they confess their love and stop the car to kiss. Professor Fate whizzes past them triumphantly and takes the win. But as soon as he wears the winner’s wreath around his neck, his triumphant expression changes to anger. He berates Leslie Gallant for giving him the victory, and he doesn’t care about such a victory. On the spot, he challenges Leslie to a new edition of the race, so that he can now ‘honestly’ earn the victory.
A victory given as a gift is not a victory. One against an opponent who is too weak is not satisfying. You have to be able to respect your opponent in order to appreciate and be proud of your own performance. The opponent, the challenge must have a name. In the 2008 animated film ‘Kung Fu Panda’, during a fight between the evil kung fu warrior Tai Lung – a tiger – and the Furious Five, the name of the so-called ‘Dragon Warrior’, whom Tai Lung must defeat in order to get possession of the mysterious Dragon Scroll, is unintentionally dropped. When Tai Lung hears the name, a satisfied smile wraps around his lips and he says to himself, “Po!”. So that’s his name! Our battle will become a legend!”
Rivalry thus has a different signature than what we supposedly call it. For a long time, domestic carmakers made fun of the North American rival Tesla. They neither took it seriously nor were inspired by it. Even with every year that passed and every new blow received, the opponent was still not taken seriously as a rival. But even when he can no longer be ignored, he is still not taken seriously. Instead, one becomes snivelling, blames everyone else for one’s own failure, unfair advantages the opponent receives, and sees oneself at a disadvantage. The opponent is not seen as a source of inspiration, but as a problem that won’t go away.
At Tesla, this began with the smirking about electric cars, their range, the production quality of the cars, the exaggerated-sounding promises and announcements. The company itself continued as before, finding nothing in its rival that it felt it needed to learn. After the small rival becomes a giant and puts you more and more in trouble, you change tactics. You deflect, talk about the successes that only come thanks to forced labor in China, outrageous subsidies in the U.S. or from the state of Brandenburg, point out the presumed bad working conditions at the rival, which American companies are ‘known’ to have. With sharp eyes, one finds all the faults in the opponent, but is blind when it comes to his strengths.
If that doesn’t help, the person is attacked. Elon Musk is naive, loudmouthed, a slave-driving manager, a fraudster who has no idea, a marijuana smoker, and in general. When German entrepreneur and venture capitalist Frank Thelen, best known to the public for his role as a jury member on the start-up show ‘Die Höhle der Löwen’ (The Lion’s Den), said that “children should learn to think like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos,” a wave of criticism washed over him. These people are not role models and that’s not how we want to be.
It’s not rivalry that manifests itself in these statements, but rather, in a way, envy and the knowledge that you would never make it that far. Not because you don’t have the talent or ability, but simply because of the lack of will to get off your butt, have great visions and try to implement them. And if it’s not possible here, then go where the ecosystem encourages it. After all, someone like Elon Musk from South Africa, a country where the starting position is somewhat different than in Europe, went where it was possible for him.
One aligns oneself with rivals. The U.S. and Russia would never have launched into space so quickly and successfully if it weren’t for this rivalry. Daimler and BMW were in rivalry with each other, which lasted until they settled down and made agreements where they didn’t hurt each other. And that’s when the stalemate began, leading to complacency until a rival came out of nowhere and whizzed by. We don’t even look for worthy rivals to grow on anymore. If our yardsticks are emissions standards and emissions laws, then our fall into irrelevance serves us right. We need to identify worthy rivals again and thus experience incentive. We must finally get away from snivelling.